The History of Christianity in Japan
Unknown to even many Japanese, Japan has a long history of Christianity. The usual dating of Japan’s first contact with Christianity is 1549. However, some feel that there is sufficient evidence to claim that Nestorian missionaries arrived in Japan via India, China and Korea in 199 AD and by 400 AD had planted the first churches in Japan.
In 1549, Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest, arrived in Japan. His stamina, zeal and willingness to suffer resulted in thousands of conversions in just two short years. Unfortunately, the Church soon adopted some extreme methods to advance itself, including the introduction of Buddhist and Shinto religious elements into Christian worship and using feudal lords to coerce their subjects to convert. The shoguns were also eventually persuaded that Christianity was an attempt to soften them up for European conquest. Added to that, quarrels among rival missionary groups aggravated the situations and as a result, as many as 280,000 Japanese Christians were persecuted and thousands were martyred. In 1626, Christianity was banned in Japan. For the next 250 years, Japan closed its door to the rest of the world.
It was only in the 1800s, when Commodore Perry of the US Navy forced Japan into signing an agreement that Japan’s isolation came to an end. And in 1859 the first 7 Protestant missionaries arrived in Japan.
In 1868, Emperor Meiji worked hard to modernise Japan, importing the latest technological know-how and foreign talents from the West. Japan also sought expansion throughout most of Asia. The defeat of Japan in World War II marks the first time in history when Japan suffered defeat and occupation by a foreign power. Japan was compelled to adopt a democratic constitution (thus ensuring religious freedom), renounce war and ban State Shinto (Emperor worship).
Christianity has been in Japan for a long time and there were times too when it had found the Japanese very receptive to the gospel. Yet after hundreds of years, Christianity continues to be seen as not only something foreign, but also as basically Western especially since many churches not only have Western architecture and decor, the style of worship and the hymns sung are predominantly Western. Japan needs good Japanese Christian song writers to compose more Christian songs and for churches to adopt a form of worship that is both firmly Biblical yet accepted by Japanese as part of their own culture and life.
Throughout her history, Japan has repeatedly rejected Christianity because of her suspicion of this Western influence. While the Christian doctrine cannot be adjusted to suit the Japanese temperament much more can be done to help Japanese own the Christian faith for themselves, incorporating more of their traditions and festivities into their faith and to worship God in their own distinctively Japanese ways.
Japan is a highly literate, reading and commuting society, thus offering excellent publishing and distributing structures for high-quality Christian literature. We need to pray for good Japanese Christian writers and cartoonists. The novels of Ayako Miura, dubbed the C. S. Lewis of Japan, continue to touch many hearts, but new writers are needed who can penetrate the large Japanese reading market.
Today churches in Japan remain extremely small, with an average attendance of 20 to 30 people on Sunday and most of those who go are women. Christians are a tiny minority in a society where consensus is important and because few families come to faith, individuals feel exposed. Even Christian families face pressures from their communities. Cultural pressures to conform can come in the form of an obligation to participate in religious festivals and rituals, ancestral worship and in helping to take care of the local shrine.
The small percentage of Christians is not able to make a real impact on the centres of power (industrial, commercial and political). These, and Japan’s intense work ethos squeezes out Christianity. A breakthrough, constantly anticipated and prayed for, is yet to come. The prayer for Japan is to see 10% of the population following Christ so that the society itself will be transformed by the Gospel.
However, there are reasons to think that a breakthrough is coming.
The Japanese economic miracle came to an end in the 1990s, and many Japanese are becoming disillusioned with the hopelessness and emptiness of their lives. At the same time, the Kobe Earthquake and the sarin gas attack by the Aum Shinrykyo sect shook Japanese confidence. There is also an increase in worrying crimes such as teen murders, child abduction and high school prostitution. These are signs that cracks are beginning to show in this well established, well run society and many people are turning to religions any religion to find hope. New religions and cult groups such as Jehovah witnesses are very active in Japan. They are ready to reap a spiritual harvest.
Is the church in Japan ready to reap the harvest?
There is a severe shortage of men in Japanese churches and it is difficult for missionaries to make meaningful contact with Japanese men.